The plummeting price of renewable energy is leaving nuclear power plants in the dust. To salvage the billions invested in these plants, the U.S. Department of Energy is giving them a new mission: making hydrogen.

In a pilot program, three U.S. nuke sites are being outfitted with electrolysis systems that will split water into hydrogen molecules – two hydrogen atoms bound together – and oxygen molecules. The process emits no carbon gases and operates at temperatures below 570°F, considered a “low temperature” process and consuming less energy than many forms of electrolysis.

The Davis-Besse nuclear station in Akron, OH, will make hydrogen to power commercial vehicle fleets in the city and for steel-making processes; a Minnesota plant owned by Xcel Energy will provide the gas to a range of industrial users; and hydrogen made at the Palo Verde generating station outside Phoenix will be stored and burned  for power when wind and solar energy sources attached to the grid fall short.

Instead of reducing the power plants’ operations when cheaper energy from gas or renewables flows into the grid, the plants could switch from making electricity to making hydrogen, which is steady demand from manufacturers and will have a role as a future transportation fuel. This technology could give the sagging nuclear power industry new life.

The energy department’s project adds momentum to hydrogen’s rise as an energy and economic player. Air Liquide, a French company, is building a “green” hydrogen plant near Las Vegas. Its daily 30 tons of hydrogen a day is targeted to California, which has set a goal of more than 200 hydrogen fueling stations statewide by 2025 to drive hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Australia is planning a solar- and wind-powered facility to produce hydrogen as fuel for Japan and Korea; Germany is already fueling passenger trains with hydrogen; and France has announced a €100 million investment plan to build a hydrogen production infrastructure. China in building a hydrogen infrastructure to support a million fuel-cell vehicles by 2030. 

TRENDPOST: Solar and wind grab the most attention, but “green hydrogen” will be a solid niche player in future energy markets, especially for vehicle fleets and public transport, and will offer expanding opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors. 

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